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Breaking Down The Difference Between Moisture and Hydration in Natural Hair

Avatar • May 30, 2014

hydrating natural hair

One of the first things you learn about on the journey to natural hair is moisture. Moisture, moisture, moisture. Proper moisturizing techniques and application. Moisture comes from water-based products that can be taken up by the hair. Moisturized hair is happy hair. Oils don’t moisturize the hair (exception: coconut oil). Moisturized hair makes your life easier,and can help reduce credit card debt. Moisture helps prevent breakage and encourage length retention.

While all of these things are generally accepted as true, I have come to realize there are some key distinctions between hydrating the hair and moisturizing it. Distinctions that result in us likely jumbling up terminology, which leads to confusion about what products are used for what. You probably feel as though you’ve got a good handle on how to moisturize your hair, given the plethora of information available about the topic  — but are you properly hydrating it?

According to the Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology,

Hydrating substances are used in cosmetic products to reduce moisture loss from the product during use and to increase the moisture content in material that is in contact with the product. This function is generally performed by hygroscopic substances or humectants, which are able to absorb water from the surroundings.

I’m sure we’re all pretty well versed in what humectants are, but what the heck is a “hygroscopic substance?” Well, hygroscopy is the ability of a substance to attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment, through either absorption (taking in), or adsorption (sticking to, as in humectants). It’s beginning to look like moisturizing the hair is actually hydrating it. If that is the case, what the heck is moisturizing?

According to the Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology (work with me — many of the researched principles for skincare often apply to the hair), moisturizers are considered to be substances that actively impair the evaporation of water. Therefore, moisturizing the hair often involves the use of emollients like butters and oils to lock water content into the hair.

Does this mean moisturizing is actually hydrating, and and sealing is actually moisturizing? Somewhat. Agents that hydrate the hair are solely responsible for the uptake of water into the hair (things like panthenol, amino acids, certain vitamins, and water) or the attachment of water to the hair from the environment (glycerin, honey, other humectants). Moisturizers can (and often do) include hydrating ingredients and humectants, but they also include emollients (butters and oils) that do not penetrate, and are able to perform the function we refer to as “sealing” the hair.

So what does this mean for your current hair regimen?

If your hair feels chronically dry, wonky, brittle, rough, or just not like itself, and your products aren’t working (even spritzing water and and other concoctions doesn’t help), your issue may be hydration levels in your hair.  The most common advice for those hair ailments is clarifying the hair and scalp, prayer, and deep conditioning. But what if even after all that, you’re still having hair drama?

There is absolutely no need to throw out all your products and start over. Just examine the products and your processes a little differently. Are you properly hydrating your hair? Maximum hydration can be achieved through water-based, amino acid, and vitamin enriched pre-poo treatments (think watery leave-ins and conditioners), the use of leave-in conditioners, refresher products, and through deep conditioning. Moisture and hydration retention can be achieved through using any number of lotions, hair milks, moisture butters, or pure butters and oils.

If you’re interested in my powerhouse hydrating pre-poo treatment, click here!

 

Happy Hydrating!

 

Do you feel as if you’re properly hydrating your hair? Fill us in on your current regime below!

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About Christina Patrice

Born, raised, and living in Los Angeles, Christina is BGLH's resident transitioning expert and product junkie. In addition to loving all things hair, she is a fitness novice and advocate of wearing sandals year-round. For more information on transitioning, natural hair, and her own hair journey, visit maneobjective.com. Or, if you like pictures follow Christina on Instagram @maneobjective.

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Rapunzel
Rapunzel
6 years ago

How does coconut oil moisturize hair? Does it have water in it? You said, “Moisture comes from water-based products…” Just curious.

Miss Mo
Miss Mo
6 years ago
Reply to  Rapunzel

Coconut oil has penetrating properties.
Read up on it dear. 🙂

Rapunzel
Rapunzel
6 years ago
Reply to  Miss Mo

I have actually read alot about coconut oil. It is said to be the only oil beside olive oil to penetrate the hair, reducing the intake of water into the hair shaft. That is why it is good to use before washing so that the hair shaft won’t swell up and cause the hair to weaken and break off during a washing session. Coconut oil is also good to seal hair that is already moisturized. I learned that from a scientist who has a blog.

Stace
Stace
6 years ago
Reply to  Rapunzel

by penetrating and absorbing into the hair like how water can be absorbed into the hair…coconut oil is said to prevent protein loss and since proteins are made of amino acids (which are stated in this article to attract and hold water) it aids in moisturizing the hair.

Rapunzel
Rapunzel
6 years ago
Reply to  Stace

That is correct, it helps to retain moisture but coconut oil itself does not moisturize the hair.

Miss Mo
Miss Mo
6 years ago

Lmaooo @ “Prayer”

Great write up. 🙂

Redseouls
Redseouls
6 years ago

Interesting info! Thanks Christina!

mer-pal
mer-pal
6 years ago

I don’t really think this is helpful. I mean, there wasn’t any practical information that isn’t already available on this and many other sites. And the moisture vs. hydration bit just seems like an unnecessary bit of jargon that makes natural hair sound confusing, and we have enough of that (ex. I still don’t understand the difference between a leave-in conditioner and a moisturizer.)

Cynthia
Cynthia
6 years ago
Reply to  mer-pal

Agreed. We make this natural hair thing TOO freaking confusing!!! Honestly, when it comes to natural hair, or any hair for that matter, it (in my opinion) boils down to this: Love YOUR hair. Do what works for YOU. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. we are all unique ladies with unique hair. Do what YOU want, and rock YOUR beautiful hair, no matter how you do it.

Stace
Stace
6 years ago
Reply to  mer-pal

A leave in conditioner (the watery type) contains high content of water, and generally will has humectants ( like glycerin or honey), some sort of protein or amino acids (hydrolyzed keratin/silk amino acids), and maybe some vitamins (B6 for example). Those substance will attract moisture either onto or into the hair Now a moisturizer will be thick like a pudding or cream. It will have less water content, and most importantly contain butters and oils (shea butter, cocoa butter, almond oil, grape seed oil, argan oil). These substances will coat the hair or seal it, thereby preventing the loss of the… Read more »

Nappy 4C Rocks
Nappy 4C Rocks
6 years ago
Reply to  Stace

I believe your definition of a moisturizer is wrong…butters and oils SEAL the moisture(water) in…they are not moisturizers

Dante
Dante
6 years ago

A disappointing and confusing article 🙁

ChiChi
ChiChi
6 years ago

I understand this blog just fine, however, I can’t seem to get accustomed to all of the regimens. Don’t do this. Do it this way! This is for this hair type. Its very frustrating and I just feel like we should just use what our mothers used on our hair before this natural thing became a trend.

Almost four years for me and I still don’t know what products work for me. Now, I just go with the flow.
[img]https://bglh-marketplace.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/BkT5rF_IMAAX7t4.jpg[/img]

Jacky
Jacky
6 years ago
Reply to  ChiChi

I love your fro and your outfit!

Bebe
Bebe
6 years ago

I’d be loathe to follow the Hydration DIY treatment as it seems chock full of protein plus I don’t use many drugstore products. I think the information on this site is always meant to be taken with a grain of salt and the comments is a place for us to offer opinions or in this case alternatives. To be honest, I don’t find much hydrating and believe that water intake is the key not topical applications alone.

shayshay
shayshay
6 years ago

Let me preface that I generally enjoy Christina Patrice’s articles and find them helpful as well as fun to read. I don’t delight in saying this, but this was one of the most confusing articles I’ve read here in a long time! I’m disappointed because I truly want to understand. Christina, I’m sure you know what you’re talking about, but unfortunately, you lost me with the esoteric jargon. Some of us, including me, aren’t scientists with advanced degrees. How might you explain this to a layperson? For starters, I appreciate your sourcing and attributions, but how about a translation in plain… Read more »

Deedeemaha
Deedeemaha
6 years ago
Reply to  shayshay

I agree with your thoughts Shayshay. I enjoy most of the articles here. This one I fine not so much confusing but it has a cut and paste flow. When that happens I find myself rushing through the article As you said, Shay, some of us are not scientist with degrees, therefore, it seem that when a person ask a question here it’s a put down or a condescending response by commenters and some writers as well. In life’s classroom there is a student who is Bold enough to ask a question, and many have benefitted. They call them Leaders… Read more »

Stace
Stace
6 years ago
Reply to  shayshay

I’m glad you wrote this comment, because at first I didn’t understand why so many people were confused about this article. Like Christina Patrice I am a scientist with an advanced degree, so for me it was pretty clear. I can’t speak for Christina but I can try to simplify as best I can to aid in resolving some of the confusion. Think of hygroscopic substance as a category, a humectant would fall into the category of a hygroscopic substance. Since a hygroscopic substance is one that can either a) absorb into the hair (think water) or b) sit on… Read more »

shayshay
shayshay
6 years ago
Reply to  Stace

Deedeemaha, it helps to know I wasn’t alone in my opinion. I struggled with even saying anything, because you’re right — sometimes people are attacked for asking a question.

Stace, thank you so much for your explanation! That was ABSOLUTELY helpful and clear.

Athena Duran
Athena Duran
4 years ago
Reply to  Stace

So where does conditioning/deep conditioning fit into this??
Does conditioning=hydration and if so what does this mean for deep conditioning am i using oils and butters or humectants and water?

zimzam
zimzam
6 years ago
Reply to  shayshay

I totally agree with you. I just skipped the article when it went into interplantery hair language and went to the comments. I’m on my lunchbreak. 😉

Jolip
Jolip
6 years ago

Great article. My hair was recently butt dry…so I bought shampoo…ON NO NOT SHAMPOO…lol. I deep conditioned with avocado and banana mix, shampooed my hair, with a shampoo that was too stripping-which is another story. I honesty think that the key to hydrating/moisturizing hair is first a clean scalp. Adding products on top of co-washing does not do any good, it is just weighing down the hair and making it dryer in my opinion.

Stace
Stace
6 years ago
Reply to  Jolip

You are so right. I noticed the same thing, and really it makes sense. Shampoo lifts the cuticle so that water and other things can get inside the hair. So just applying more things on top of sealed hair is really never going to allow the products to work properly, or the hair to be hydrated and thereby moisturized. You hit the nail on the head with the entire point of this article.….you can’t moisturize your hair with butter and oils and emollients, you can only do so with water and humectants and THEN (after) seal in that water with… Read more »

Theodora
Theodora
6 years ago

Love this post!

Jacky
Jacky
6 years ago

Nice article, thanks for posting! What i got from it was that the terms moisturizing and hydrating got their meanings mixed up. In terms of products, moisturizing is actually sealing( adding a protective layer to keep moisture in the hair ) while hydrating is what we typically know as moisturizing{ adding moisture to the hair ).

Soapbox
6 years ago

Well I thought the article was pretty clear. Y’all need to just read a book 😉
I kid, I kid, I do think some of the word choices were off which made the piece hard to read, especially if you’re reading quickly.

mer-pal
mer-pal
6 years ago
Reply to  Soapbox

The article was pretty clear, it’s just that I’m not sure what to do with the information. You can’t scroll down a page without someone writing an article about the importance of moisturizing/sealing/whatever. I guess it was a decent vocabulary lesson. However, it just didn’t provide any practical information that couldn’t be gotten in an easier way from literally any other page on this site.

Macblogster
6 years ago
Reply to  mer-pal

I agree!

Deb
Deb
6 years ago

“If your hair feels chronically dry, wonky, brittle, rough, or just not like itself, and your products aren’t working (even spritzing water and and other concoctions doesn’t help), your issue may be hydration levels in your hair. The most common advice for those hair ailments is clarifying the hair and scalp, prayer, and deep conditioning.” I’ll keep saying this because sometimes it’s forgotten but if you do all this and your hair is STILL chronically dry no matter what, look into nutritional deficiency or an internal cause. From my experience (and what I believe to be common sense), natural hair… Read more »

Nappy 4C Rocks
Nappy 4C Rocks
6 years ago
Reply to  Deb

yes, 4 liters of water a day…plenty of vegetables

Macblogster
6 years ago

Thanx for this article. I’m from the Netherlands, so English is not my mother tonge. Although I didn’t know (and will forget) the scientific names,the main point of the article seems to be clear to me. Conluding: 1. Look carefully at product labels before you buy anything. The first product you use should contain water. 2. Don’t be misled by the terms “moisturiser” & “hydrating” on products. 3. Hydrating= is adding water to the hair (step 1 in the LOC/LCO proces. 4. Moisturising= locking in water based products in your hair. 5. Coconut oil is a 2 in 1 product. When you… Read more »

Miss Mo
Miss Mo
6 years ago
Reply to  Macblogster

Well said Macblogster.

Not sure what is so hard to grasp here.

Macblogster
6 years ago
Reply to  Miss Mo

I think people are overwhelmed by the difficult words. They should be able to ask questions here. Why not be supportive & respectful to eachother by trying to explain? Where all in the same boat, aren’t we?

You never know who needs you. Good energy is contagious.” 🙂

shayshay
shayshay
6 years ago
Reply to  Macblogster

Macblogster, even though English is not your first language, you’ve defined points 3 and 4 for me very well. Thank you!

Adeola @ TheManeCaptain

i agree that there’s a difference between moisture/hydration. sometimes my hair feels dry, but it also feels moisturize. I believe this article is for women who feel their hair has to be hydrated all the time and so they carry a spray bottle in their purses. This article was written with the assumption that we all have a background knowledge in hair science. And so i understand it well, but for those who don’t understand, I suggest reading through “Jc-Natural Haven’s” articles for a crash course in natural hair science 🙂
http://www.themanecaptain.blogspot.ca

Hi There
Hi There
6 years ago

Sooo confused lol! After over a year of trying to find a product that moisturised (hydrates?) my hair, I finally found that my hair loved glycerin (a humectant) + water. Literally nothing else worked so I kinda just accepted that that was what worked for my hair. I actually used this article as a guide: http://bglh-marketplace.com/2012/02/dry-hair-solutions-how-do-moisturizers-work/ But now you’re saying that other products, with emollients and stuff, should work as well? Don’t get me wrong, that would be great seeing as glycerine is a very tricky ingredient. makes my hair super soft, but also very frizzy. BUT it was my… Read more »

Ayda
Ayda
3 years ago

I think I’m really confused right now. So you’re saying that oils don’t moisturize the hair, what then do they do ?? I’m new to the transitioning thing and I really need help

Nikki
Nikki
3 years ago

Thanks for this post. I always tell my kids that we (people in general) use a lot of common words the wrong way because we don’t actually know what they mean. We often learn the meaning of words by getting the gist of what a person is saying rather than knowing for sure what a person is saying. Thank you for this article, I am glad to know the actual meaning of the words “moisturize” and “hydrate” and now feel I actually know what my goal is when I am managing my hair and purchasing hair products.

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